The Gameboy was launched into the world in 1989. Bundled with the handheld console was the addictive puzzle game Tetris. Alone they were both great products, but together they formed potent combination that quickly became a worldwide phenomenon.
The new Tetris players didn’t just see it’s blocks on their Gameboys. Tetronimos appeared on ceiling tiles, boxes of cereal, milk crates, floor tiles, or anything with squares. Playing Tetris trains its players to see it’s shapes everywhere, and how those pieces could fit together. This bleeding of the game’s mechanics into everyday life came to be known as “The Tetris Effect“.
This effect doesn’t apply just to Tetris, or even just videogames. Chess, music, programming. After engaging with a patterned system for long enough your brain will start finding those patterns everywhere. But for this article I’m still going to be focusing on video games, just a different kind.
For me, open world games trigger this reaction way more than any other. I chalk this up to two factors. First are the very detailed and realistic worlds these games present. By mimicking the real world so closely it’s very easy to find their patterns represented. The second factor is that these game’s reward finding specific objects within their world. The net effect is that I begin to take notice of weird things I normally ignore in real life.
Let’s look at some examples from my own life.
Grand Theft Auto 5 – Cars
When driving in real life my only concern regarding other people’s cars are their proximity to me. But after playing enough GTA5 I started paying more attention. The GTA series if infamous for allowing you to take any car you find. If a car looks cool or goes fast, grab it, it’s yours. Constantly scanning, evaluating virtual cars carried over into scanning and evaluating of real cars. During my commute to work all of a sudden I started noticing certain kinds of cars, ones with cool paint jobs or looked fast. Its not like I wanted to steal them, I just couldn’t help but notice anymore.
Metal Gear Solid V – Shipping containers
MGSV lets you take anything that isn’t bolted down and ship it to your army’s base with military grade balloons. Guns, animals, vehicles, but mostly people. For some reason out of all the things that can be stolen, what I started to take note of in real life was large shipping containers. In MGSV these contain a very large amount of a single resource, and are especially rewarding to collect. They aren’t especially common in game, or in real life, which is probably why they became notable in my head while out and about.
Horizon: Zero Dawn – Flowers
Collectibles in HZD are marked on the screen with a little icon, something that can’t appear in real life, so this game almost side stepped this phenomenon. For me the most important items were the healing herbs, marked with a small leaf icon. These allow you to essentially bank health. When activated your character heals at a 1 to 1 ratio of herbs and missing health. I like to be as efficient as possible with my heals , so I love this system.
But not all small leaf icons were healing herbs. Many of them were ingredients for crafting resist potions. I didn’t care for these potions, and wanted to save the bag space, so I started to avoid these types of herbs. Quickly I noticed that healing herbs had red flowers and long thing stems, and only grabbed those.
During my most recent commute to work I found myself noticing little flowers with long thin stems on the side of the road. I can’t imagine ever paying attention to something so small and mundane without the influence of HZD.
I find this phenomenon fascinating. I wonder if there is anyway it could be utilized for something positive? Maybe when GTA6 comes out, it could reward players with cash every time they pick up litter, leading to cleaner streets in real life? Probably not, but it’s an interesting idea.
Let me know in the comments if you’ve ever experienced the Tetris effect with a different game or activity, or if you have any ideas of how it could be used for good.